BY DAVID SALTONSTALL
DAILY NEWS SENIOR CORRESPONDENT
Saturday, November 15th 2008, 10:49 PM
It will be a thunderous welcome, delivered mostly by Hispanic voters who - having provided a critical edge to Obama on Election Day in several key states - are looking for payback.
"We voted in the millions, and now we're going to demand progress in the millions," said Angelica Salas, an organizer of the Jan. 21 protest and director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
To put it mildly, expectations are high that Obama - himself the product of an immigrant father - can deliver on the dicey reform proposals that divided Congress and the nation a year ago.
It's hard to blame anyone for high hopes, since Obama explicitly vowed on the campaign trail to not only tackle the issue, but do so relatively quickly.
As he told the National Council of La Raza in July, "I fought with you in the Senate for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will make it a top priority in my first year as President."
Yet there are signs already - largely because of the nation's crushing economic woes - that immigration will once again take a backseat legislatively.
When Obama was asked a few days before the election on CNN to rank five major issues - tax cuts, health care, energy, education and immigration - he added the economy, then dropped immigration altogether.
Last week, aides declined to discuss where the issue will fit in his agenda.
"Obviously, the wars and the economy come first," said Daniel Kowalski, editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, an online resource for immigration law, policy and news.
"Obama is committed to [comprehensive immigration reform] in the long run, and his debt to Latino voters will ensure that he makes good on his promise," added Kowalski. "But it will take time - 2012 at the earliest, probably later" - meaning it would take a second Obama term to get it done.
His political debt is real. Exit poll data show Hispanic voters backed Obama by a whopping 2-to-1 margin, helping to deliver much of the Southwest as well as Florida and other big battlegrounds where Republicans have long held sway.
Latino support for Obama was higher than the national average in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia - all formerly red states with growing Latino populations that turned blue for Obama, the Pew Hispanic Center found.
Of course there are some measures that Obama, as the new chief executive, can and likely will enact on his own.
That includes ending the Bush administration's policy of raiding businesses to ensnare illegal immigrants, a top-to-bottom review of detention policies and facilities where inmates often languish, and clearing the backlog of family members waiting to join legal relatives here.
But in terms of the really big conundrums - like what to do about the 12 million illegal immigrants already here and how to establish a new guest-worker program - that may take a while.
One possible roadblock? Organized labor, which also helped get Obama elected and may now take a dim view of any program that makes it easier for illegal immigrants to fill scarce jobs.
But immigrant advocates say their patience is limited.
"If we don't see change," said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, "I don't think anyone should expect that this bloc of voters will continue to follow [the Democratic Party]."